The Sixth Circuit ruled Friday in favor of Christian graduate student Julea Ward, who nearly three years ago was expelled from Eastern Michigan University's counseling program for trying to have a homosexual client reassigned to someone else because of her religious beliefs.
The court decision was hailed by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – groups representing Ward – as a major victory for the constitutional rights of individuals with religious beliefs.
The Sixth Circuit opinion was strongly worded, reversing a district court decision in favor of the university and sending the case back for trial, ADF explained in a statement released by the Christian lawyers group shortly after the ruling. The appeals court said, "A reasonable jury could conclude that Ward's professors ejected her from the counseling program because of hostility toward her speech and faith…."
"Public universities should not force students to violate their religious beliefs to get a degree. The court rightly understood this and ruled appropriately," said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who argued before the court in October of last year.
"Rather than allow Julea to refer a potential client to another qualified counselor – a common, professional practice to best serve clients – EMU attacked and questioned Julea's religious beliefs and ultimately expelled her from the program because of them."
Ward was kicked out of the counseling program because she refused to affirm homosexual conduct as morally acceptable.
"Ward had been asked to counsel a client about a homosexual relationship. She declined, saying she could not affirm the client's relationship without violating her religious beliefs," evangelical leader Chuck Colson reported last year. "On the advice of her supervising professor, Ward referred the client to a counselor who had no moral objections to affirming homosexual relationships."
However, EMU's speech code prohibits "discrimination based on ... sexual orientation." Unless Ward submitted to a "remedial program" in order to understand "the error of her ways" and alter her "belief system," she would be expelled, Colson explained.
"It may not surprise you to learn that the EMU speech code did not deter the faculty from making derogatory comments to Ward about her Christian beliefs -- just before they threw her out of the counseling program," he said.
In its opinion, the 6th Circuit wrote, "A university cannot compel a student to alter or violate her belief systems based on a phantom policy as the price for obtaining a degree …. Why treat Ward differently? That her conflict arose from religious convictions is not a good answer; that her conflict arose from religious convictions for which the department at times showed little tolerance is a worse answer."
EMU has denied any bias. The case "has never been about religion or religious discrimination. It is not about homosexuality or sexual orientation. This case is about what is in the best interest of a person who is in need of counseling," said EMU communications spokesman Walter Kraft, as reported by The Huffington Post.
Kraft referred to the ethics codes of two counseling associations when talking about the school's accredited program and said, "Those Ethical Standards require that counselors are not to allow their personal values to intrude into their professional work."
However, Eric Rassbach, who is the national litigation director at the Becket Fund, said counselors often refer clients to someone or somewhere else, and doing so for religious reasons should not be any different.
"No individual should be forced out of their profession solely because of her religious beliefs," Rassbach asserted. "Counselors refer clients elsewhere all the time for personal, financial, or ethical reasons, and referrals for religious reasons should be treated no differently."